Christopher Hill: “Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution”

Chritopher Hill was Master of Balliol College Oxford and a Marxist historian of Methodist origins. He died in 2003 aged 91. This book about the English Revolution is a masterly one. It makes the point that my ancestral cousin Oliver Cromwell strived for toleration among many factions. The Civil Wars, brutal even by the standards of the twentieth century, were brought about by an intolerant King, my distant ancestral cousin Charles 1st, also Cromwell’s distant cousin. Cromwell first came to prominence when he protested at the treatment of the Leveller leader John Lilburne (1614 – 1657) and in only four years was promoted Lieutenant General of Horse, having had no previous military training. Cromwell encouraged unorthodox factions such as the Levellers and Anabaptists within the New Model Army. It was the dithering of politicians that led him to dissolve Parliament using soldiers to throw them out. However he did not set himself up as dictator, and refused to become a king. He said that he did not want to rebuild the walls of Jericho. Hill makes the point that representative democracy is possible only when the electorate is worthy of such a system. Unfortunately, Cromwell and Ireton rejected the Leveller Constitution proposed at Putney in 1647 by the radicals of the New Model Army. It may be argued that the Republic fell apart as early as 1653 when Cromwell was offered the Protectorate, but the monarchy never regained absolute authority after the Protectorate. It still tries to pretend that it has power, but this is an unhealthy fantasy. In his last days Cromwell’s health disintegrated rapidly after his favourite daughter died, and he died of malarial disorder in 1658. Britain is not at all uniformly monarchist, it has always had a strong republican and radical tradition, which is ridden over roughshod on a day such as today. I do not think that the electorate in Britain as a whole is ready for a referendum on the monarchy, I think that mindless emotionalism would win the day. However, in Wales and Scotland, two radical countries, a vote for republics could be carried. The politicians we have today are corrupt and worthless, with few exceptions, and try to hang on to power for year after pointless year. So a movement for government by referendum should be started to give them the equivalent of Cromwell’s toe cap. Lastly, Cromwell was tolerant of the Catholics and the Jews, while a royalist Cambridge and Oxford once prohibited all but churchgoers from going there. Although this is a technologically advanced time, people can be as ignorant as in the dark ages, but a lot more apathetic.

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